The Plastic-Eating Enzyme that Can Save Oceans

by Julian on April 17, 2018 - 4:52pm

Scientists have created a mutant enzyme capable of eating plastic bottles. This discovery is a major breakthrough for environmentalists since it could solve the global plastic pollution crisis. Initially, in 2016, a team of Japanese researchers found a specie of bacteria that can break down the molecular bonds of one of the most commonly used plastic in the world, polyethylene terephthalate,  also known as polyester or PET. Then, two years later, Prof John McGeehan, from the University of Portsmouth, UK, led a research on the enzyme produced by the plastic-eating bacteria. By tweaking the enzyme to observe how it involved within the bacteria, McGeehan’s team accidentally made the molecule even more proficient at breaking down polyester used for soft drink bottles. The modified mutant enzyme of the bacteria can now take up to only a few days to break down bottle PET, compared to the oceans who might take centuries. Once the plastic is decomposed into its original components by the bacteria, it can be recycled back again into plastic bottles, carpets, or clothing. Consequently, there is no need to produce new plastic. McGeehan feels very relieved by his surprising finding because plastic is very resistant to degradation. Furthermore, it spreads in even the remotest parts of the oceans to target all marine life and potentially people who eat seafood.  Despite his technological advancement, McGeehan points out that the polyester-eating enzyme can be further optimised. For instance, the enzyme could be transplanted into an extremophile bacteria that can survive above the melting temperature of PET. The enzyme would then be able to degrade the molten polyester 10 to 100 times faster. Moreover, McGeehan envisions a promising future for enzyme technology in the face of the growing pollution crisis. After all, enzymes are convenient since they are non-toxic, biodegradable, and they can be produced in large amounts by microorganisms. Nonetheless, reducing plastic consumption in the first place would still be preferable. Lastly, Prof. Adisa Azapagic, from the University of Manchester,UK, warns that a full life-cycle assessment would be needed in order to verify that enzyme technology does not solve one environmental problem such as waste, at the expense of others like additional greenhouse gas emissions.


I find that technology can sometimes work wonders when it comes to addressing environmental issues. The use of plastic-eating enzyme sounds convenient and useful. However, there is always certain drawbacks to the integration of external human factors on an ecosystem. For example, the enzyme may consume polyester, but it could also consume other species of plants that are limiting factors for the ecosystem’s marine fauna and flora. A full life-cycle assessment is therefore required to evaluate the potential negative consequences of enzyme technology.



I genuinely believe that this was truly an incredible article. These bacteria! it seems that they keep getting discovered and never truly stop being diverse, unique and yet so simple creatures. Finding that one can dissolve material that are not biodegradable is groundbreaking, in my opinion and can't believe i never heard of that before. But i do have question which i can't seem to find the answers online...Are these bacteria easy to cultivate? How fast can they eat a, lets say, bottle? Then, how much time until they eat enough to make an impact? the "10 or 100 times faster" doesn't really relate to how fast it normally is. I feel like these questions should be answered for us to keep being impressed at how science is helping us save the planet. i agree that if they prove to be of efficient use, we would be blessed as humans. and I agree on the issue of having more humans play with the ecosystem being dangerous. We already messed up a few times, we should be more careful.

About the author